Over breakfast one morning in the spring of 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke to me of his plans to transform Mexico. He was running for the Mexican Presidency, and we were in Parral, the Chihuahua mining town where Pancho Villa had been gunned down ninety-five years earlier. Where Villa’s revolutionary campaign had been bloody, López Obrador said, his would be peaceful, but it, too, would change history. What about Donald Trump? I asked. How was he going to deal with him?
A veteran left-of-center politician, López Obrador appeared to be fervently opposed to everything that Trump stood for. He had excoriated the outgoing President, Enrique Peña Nieto, for appeasing Trump in spite of his disrespectful remarks about Mexico and Mexicans, and he had vowed, by contrast, to defend Mexico’s sovereignty and the dignity of its people. At one point, he had said that, if Trump continued to send troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, he would counter with a peaceful army of Mexican civilians, dressed in white. And, if Trump insisted on building his border wall, he would launch a protest before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In another conversation, the candidate had mentioned Trump and raised his eyebrows theatrically, as if to say, “You’ve got a real crazy one on your hands.”
But, in Parral, López Obrador replied to my question about Trump with a certain ambiguity. “I am sending messages of tranquillity, and I am going to continue to do so,” he said. “And, quite apart from my differences with Trump, I have treated him with respect.” López Obrador has been true to his word. Ever since that moment, right through his electoral victory, a couple of months later, and his Inauguration as Mexico’s President, in December, 2018, amlo, as he is known, has continued to be respectful of Trump. Wednesday’s jovial White House meeting between the two leaders, which was convened to celebrate the implementation of the revamped North American Free Trade Agreement—now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or U.S.M.C.A.—seemed to show that his strategy had paid off.
After the meeting in the Oval Office, Trump and amlo emerged in the Rose Garden to sign their respective copies of the trade agreement. Trump, as ever, did so with an oversized flourish, using what appeared to be a Sharpie; amlo signed his with distinctly more modest penmanship. They also praised each other before a small audience and the television cameras. Trump said that amlo had been a “tough negotiator” but that, thanks to their agreement, the United States and Mexico have “never been closer.” amlo expressed his gratitude for the “understanding and respect” Trump had shown to Mexico. Perhaps wishing it were so, he also thanked Trump for being “increasingly respectful” toward Mexicans living in the United States. Later on, at a working dinner in the White House, eleven Mexican business titans were on hand, including the telecom billionaire Carlos Slim. Sea bass and saffron potatoes were served, with brown-sugar shortbread and toasted meringue for dessert. White-rose bouquets adorned each table, along with elegant menus, each of them decorated with hand-painted Mexican and American flags shown crossed in friendship.
At his daily press conference on Monday—López Obrador holds daily pressers, called mañaneras, in which he seeks to frame the day’s news—he had defended his decision to go to Washington to meet Trump. “My critics, our adversaries, ask how can I go if he has offended Mexicans. I want to say to the people of my country that, in the time we’ve been in government, there has been a relationship of respect, not just toward the government but especially toward the people of Mexico,” he said.
Technically speaking, he was right. Trump has been more respectful, rhetorically, toward Mexico since amlo took office. López Obrador’s critics say that this is because he has accommodated Trump in most of his demands: dispatching Mexico’s security forces to stop Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border; agreeing to allow those seeking asylum in the U.S. to stay in Mexico, rather than the United States, to await their immigration hearings; and acceding to Trump’s requests in the new trade deal. Whenever Trump has mentioned amlo, he has tended to speak favorably of him, and amlo has gone out of his way to thank Trump for his kind words. It all seems a far cry from the tone of things in 2015, when Trump kicked off his Presidential campaign by vilifying Mexicans as “drug dealers” and “rapists,” and calling for the construction of a border wall that Mexico would pay for. Trump has not stopped his racist dog-whistling, of course. Indeed, at his Tulsa rally last month, he invoked the dangers of an unpoliced America by conjuring up a thinly veiled scenario for rape, in which a “tough hombre” breaks into an American home to find someone’s wife there unprotected and on her own, her husband away at work.
The former career U.S. diplomat Roberta Jacobson served as President Obama’s last Ambassador to Mexico. She resigned her post in May, 2018, to make way for Trump’s appointee. This week, recalling her final meeting as Ambassador with López Obrador, Jacobson said, “He told me his No. 1 priority as President would be to have a positive relationship with the United States. I guess he’s achieved that, but I don’t know if it should have been at all costs.” Jacobson questioned the timing of López Obrador’s visit, with just four months to go before the U.S. Presidential election, and expressed her dismay over the fact that he made no effort to meet with the Democratic candidate and current front-runner, Joe Biden, nor with senior members of the Democratic-led House. “I guess the calculation is you don’t want to piss the President off and then have to deal with negative tweets, but that’s shortsighted,” she said.
Biden did things differently, Jacobson told me. In March, 2012, she accompanied Biden, then the Vice-President, on a trip to Mexico. Finding himself in the midst of that nation’s Presidential race, Biden had taken pains not to appear to play favorites and arranged to meet not only with the outgoing President, Felipe Calderón, but with three politicians seeking to replace him: Peña Nieto, who eventually won the election; Josefina Vázquez Mota; and López Obrador. “Biden even changed the color of his tie so as not to irritate anyone on the trip,” Jacobson recalled. amlo’s inability to show Biden similar consideration is unfortunate, she added, because personal chemistry is important for Biden, and, if he wins, “the relationship will get off to a bad start.”
Another former Obama official, Juan S. Gonzalez, who is currently Biden’s senior adviser on Latin-American affairs, also expressed irritation at López Obrador’s visit. “For Trump,” he said, “this meeting is a timely distraction for his failure to respond to the pandemic and its economic impact, and somehow a way for his Administration to seem pro-immigrant.” Gonzalez added that the reason that amlo and his government have been assisting Trump on immigration is “because they need the U.S.M.C.A., and also because, like Putin and Xi and Erdoğan, they’ve figured out that, if you play to Donald Trump’s ego, he’ll give you what you want. So amlo does what Trump wants on immigration, because he doesn’t want him to close the border. He panders to Trump to avoid poking the tiger, in other words.”
Gonzalez’s perception of amlo as someone who has been coerced into doing Trump’s bidding is shared by a number of other observers, among them Luis Miguel González, a seasoned Mexican journalist and the editorial director of the leading Mexican financial newspaper, El Economista. “Trump has an intimidating effect on amlo,” he said. “He has made him behave in a way that has little to do with his previous trajectory, nor is in the tradition of the Mexican left, for that matter. Everyone in his circle knows not to anger Trump, because he has given them that directive, but nobody knows exactly where this cosmic level of fear is coming from.”
López Obrador’s critics suggest that it has to do with his popularity ratings; his level of public approval has dropped during the pandemic. (Mexico’s levels of covid-19 are high, and the country has seen more than thirty thousand deaths.) According to a poll that El Economista published earlier this week, ninety-five per cent of López Obrador’s supporters approved of the Washington trip, whereas seventy per cent of Mexicans who support other political parties said that it was a terrible idea. “The trip is serving to reiterate the polarization we are living through,” González said.
Eric Farnsworth, a former Clinton Administration official who is currently the vice-president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, thinks that López Obrador’s calculations regarding the trip are primarily economic. “amlo’s own political agenda is better served by seeking accommodation with Washington wherever possible.” But, he added, López Obrador “has a fierce loyalty to his own political instincts and world view, much like Trump. In this, the two leaders appear to understand each other and also to respect each other. So, it appears that amlo will take the opportunity to highlight the U.S.M.C.A. as a means to renew investor interest in Mexico, particularly from within North America. He will also seek to gain additional support in fighting the pandemic. And he will seek Trump’s guarantees for economic forbearance at least through the November elections.”
Alejandro Páez Varela, a Mexican journalist who runs the prominent news Web site Sin Embargo, echoed Farnsworth’s assessment, and further ventured an explanation as to why amlo was willing to make his trip despite the upset it is causing among Democrats. “amlo’s roads all lead to Mexico First, and to have stood up Trump would have brought on a terrible punishment,” Páez Varela said. “On the other hand, curiously enough, the Democrats have been mediocre in their dealings with Mexico. Obama was a great disappointment, earning himself the nickname of Deporter-in-Chief.” He added, “I think amlo is adhering to the old Mexican proverb ‘Better a bird in the hand than a hundred flying,’ or ‘Better the devil you know than the good man you’ve yet to meet.’ And, frankly, with the Democrats being the way they are, this trip won’t alter their Mexico agenda much if they do win. If they punish Mexico, it won’t be as hard as whatever punishment Trump might mete out. amlo thinks of Mexico and only Mexico. That’s his agenda. Except for a few honorable exceptions, he doesn’t do international politics. So, in spite of the risks, he’s gone [to Washington] because he thinks it will bring good things to Mexico.”